The president is nearing the end of his term and the games are beginning in earnest already. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is calling the missile defense system the U.S. government is planning on setting up in Eastern Europe a direct threat to Russia’s security. He has made it clear that Russia plans to find retaliatory measures should the U.S. government not back down, including aiming missiles at European targets.
But now, just to add to the fun, China has decided to get into the act. Sino-Russian relations have been improving over the last few years and it seems China is eager to help the Russians in their most recent dangerous game:
China joined Russia on Tuesday in criticizing a US plan to build a missile defense system in Europe, saying the system could set off an arms race.
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“China believes that the impact of a missile defense system on strategic defense and stability is not conducive to mutual trust of major nations and regional security,” she said. “It may also give rise to a proliferation problem.”
Just a couple of quick notes on the situation, in no particular order, below the fold. . .
There is a lot of speculation in the media about Russia’s intentions, most of which seem to be overly driven by the prejudices of the Cold War, most of which were crap. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert, but I’m just going to throw a few ideas around the Internet, as long as the ill-informed are to be given such credence.
First of all, while the current missile defense system may not have capabilities that are a direct threat to Russia, Putin would have to be a fool to think that this is where it ends. Putin may perhaps be many things (gangster, thug, political assassin, to name a few), but “fool” is most certainly not one of them. Especially where existential threats are concerned.
Despite shrilling to the contrary in American news media, he is also right in saying that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are years away from presenting a problem big enough to warrant this type of installation, assuming that they would ever be so threatening to Europe. And if you’re protecting Europe from a Middle Eastern threat, why would you put the installation in Poland, for god’s sake? Wouldn’t Greece or Turkey be better choices?
So irrespective of any other considerations, let’s not lose sight of the fact that there are very good reasons for all concerned to question why this defense system is being built, where it’s being built and why it’s being built now. In fact, as Americans, we have every right to question why it is being built so quietly as to have evaded our news media. Do we not have a right to know if our president is about to start a new cold war?
And then there is Russia’s motives to consider. If there is one thing that I have learned about Russian politics recently, it’s that everything is about alternating currents of conspiracy and bombast. A million untold stories lie behind every action by every player in Russia, and once one person lifts their periscope above the water, the whole place lights up like a Christmas tree with wild accusations and remarkable acts of audacity. So when we see Putin responding as though a second Cuban Missile Crisis is upon us, keep in mind that Russian politics only have settings “0” and “10,” with no intervening numbers.
That doesn’t mean that Putin himself cannot find reasonable alternatives – I’m quite certain that he’s nothing if not pragmatic – but in front of the cameras, Russian politics expect him to be over the top or under someone’s heel; Khrushchev pounding his shoe against a desk. So Putin plants the seed in Russian minds that the U.S. is moving towards another Cold War (the conspiracy part), and then threatens to aim missiles at European nations upon which he depends to maintain his economy (the bombast part).
So, it’s clear Russia wants something, and the only question is what? The commonly harumphed speculation from The Right in this country is that “the Russians want to drive a wedge between America and her allies in Europe.” Is that really it, though? It seems a bit “Snidley Whiplash,” don’t you think? Perhaps there is a more practical answer.
One of the under-discussed parts of presidential politics is the reaction of foreign nations. Within this country, we like to think of countries as faceless blobs on a map; Even where we can match the face of a Prime Minister or President to a country, we still rarely discuss the internal politics of that nation. Among leaders of nations, the passing between one American president and another is readily recognized as America’s weakest moment.
If there is a time to play games with the United States, it is this time, and that’s especially true with a president as obviously diplomatically flat-footed as this one. Bush’s approval ratings at home are abysmal, he has irritated most of the world, making alliances with the U.S. dangerous to world leaders at home, his military is bogged down in Iraq and in fact, control of the military and the War in Iraq are the only things that keep him from being an entirely irrelevant afterthought in American life.
If you want a piece of the action, now is the time to take it.
In fact, this would be China’s second attempt in the life of the Bush Administration. Remember Wong Wei? A new, unpopular president takes the mantle of leadership, and suddenly our nation finds itself with captured pilots in China, watching the president bumble and stumble his way into a weak diplomatic position with an emerging financial powerhouse. We see a Realpolitik in other nations which we are rarely allowed by the media to see in our own.
So George Bush goes to the G8 summit representing one of the most irrelevant, weak and backward versions of the United States since it’s inception. Not since slave owners yearned to be free and farmers with pitchforks made up our military have we been more of a contradiction and less in step with the world. How could the ascendant Russia not take advantage where it can?
And I think that ultimately, the biggest political gain for the Russian is not driving a wedge between the U.S. and it’s allies, but simply to make the U.S. budge when it doesn’t want to. Just like China; just like Iran.
So I guess where I’m coming from is that just because the Russians are talking Cold War doesn’t mean anyone plans on letting things get that far. What’s really going on is the slow disintegration of our relevance on the world stage. Instead of brokering deals among other nations – for good or evil, take your pick – we are reacting to a world in which we are increasingly unwelcome, decreasingly protagonistic and more commonly on the defensive.
Our president is making half-assed gestures on Global Warming precisely because he doesn’t have much that anyone wants to talk to him about. It’s not a change of heart, it’s a flailing attempt at diplomacy. Russia and China are looking to dip in (the same way that Iran did) by causing a stir for which the American president is ill-prepared, leaving European leaders with very little choice but to capitulate.
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